First, you need to know my position.
--I am a writer, not a publisher or a bookseller.
--I am primarily a YA writer, but I write MG as well.
--I am female, sex and gender alike.
--So far, all of my finished novels, and certainly all of my published ones, have had male protagonists.
--95% of what I read is contemporary. I don't generally like SF/F.
--I generally prefer to read books with male protagonists
--About 70% of my reading is in YA.
People have been talking about the issue of boys in YA for a long time, but these discussions seem to have reached a head recently--one that I think has been a long time coming.
I want to make it clear that there are going to be exceptions to every single thing I say. One of the big points I'm trying to make in this post, in fact, is that generalizing doesn't fucking work. So please understand that none of what I will say is true 100% of the time, and your knowledge that there are exceptions to what I'm about to lay out might not invalidate what I'm saying. This is literature. Nothing is universal.
The problem we're talking about is fairly simple: boys don't read YA. This isn't an issue of "boys don't read"--we're not talking about these boys. We're talking about avid readers, boys who ate up middle grade but go to adult fiction and non-fiction instead of passing through YA, and nobody really knows why.
I'm not an expert on this. I'm just a chick who writes, at least from my point of view, the kind of YA that is the closest that we have right now to "boy books," which is really just to say that my books have male main characters, because right now that is all we offer boys.
And it isn't enough.
I've been thinking about this a lot, and I've come up with a lot of theories for why boys aren't reading YA. Some of these probably aren't true. Maybe most of them aren't. But whether or not these are the root of the problems, they are issues that I'm seeing swept under the rug, and I believe they're truths we don't want to look at.
It's not all the writer's fault. We've all heard that publishers don't buy boy books--and 1. they do, and 2. why should they if they aren't selling--and it pisses me the fuck off how many boys there are who won't pick up a book with a girl main character or, heaven forbid, a book with a chick's name in the cover.
It's not entirely our fault. But it does start with us.
Here's what we did:
--We've stereotyped boys. Most boys in YA fit into four very particular categories.
1) The gay best friend. The gay best friend is sassy. He's also deeply damaged and vulnerable from the trauma of being gay. The girl--our main character, always--might be his only friend. He desperately needs her. Maybe he has a drug problem due to his inner torment.
2) The best guy friend. Practically like the gay best friend except he's straight, and he doesn't have inner torment. In fact, he's sweet, attentive, and as reliable as death/taxes. He's also in love with the girl MC, who for some reason hasn't noticed him even though he was always there. Don't worry, by the end of the book, she'll realize he's The One.
3) The bad boy. This is the one we're all familiar with. He's pure motorcycle on the outside, but deep down, he's just a marshmallow of love for our main character. He doesn't open up to anyone else, but he loves this one girl. He needs her. Yeah, you're all thinking about that series I haven't read, I know it, you know it, we don't need to name it.
4) The nerdy boy. This is (usually, remember usually, we're talking about usually) the only boy you will ever find as a main character. If you find a male POV, it's usually him. He's geeky but never pimply, nerdy but always in a socially-proficient, sarcastic, endearing way. He talks about masturbation because it's funny, not because of something he really likes. He's a bookworm girl's wet dream.
Which leads me to the second thing writers have done:
--We've sanitized boys. What MG books do boys love? Captain Underpants, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, books that appeal to their light side. In our efforts to empower girls (oh, and trust me, there will be much more on this later) we've forgotten that it's irrelevant right now that it's hard to grow up as a girl in today's world full of fashion magazines and celebrity marriages and mirrors in every dressing room; it's hard to grow up a boy in a world where Dad wants you to play baseball and you want to draw pictures or you want to play baseball but your best friend didn't make the team.
I'm simplifying, obviously, and you can flip and flop the sexes here--boys don't always love the mirrors either, and maybe Dad would rather braid your hair then cheer you on in the stands--but we're not arguing about which sex has it harder, we're just acknowledging a fact that YA isn't right now--boys aren't skipping their way through high school, either.
So why do MG books remember this and not YA? Why are MG books looking at showing boys every aspect of themselves, like Greg's issues with his drippy friends and his little brother, and simultaneously giving them an escape with superheros and gross-out humor, when this seems to be something that YA can't grasp?
Well, I'll tell you why.
--We've stripped boys of substance and we did it to empower girls. Somehow, the message "girls can do it too" became "only a girl can do it," and men became the weaker sex in YA.
Where are the epic fantasy trilogies with male main characters? Harry Potter isn't YA, people, stop pretending. When, since Eragon, have boys gotten to save the world? Where is the Melissa Marr for boys? Where is--yeah--Twilight for boys? Where is the science fiction that boys loved in YA, and we just assumed, for some reason, they were fine with losing when they turned 14?
Oh yeah--they're over there in adult fiction, and that's where the teenage boys are going to be, too.
Boys in YA are rubber walls for our 3D female characters to bounce off of. They're props for girls to throw around to show that they're the stronger sex.
And I get that we need to empower girls, people. I get it. But how many books about girls do we need before we can consider that a job well done?
So here's how to fix it. And this is a call to writers, and it's a call to publishers, and it's a call to readers.
--Write, publish, and promote books with real boys. Stop talking and just fucking do it. Read Shaun Hutchinson's The Deathday Letter. Now read it again.
There will be no question in your mind about whether or not Oliver is written as fantasy fodder for a girl. Oliver is not written for a girl. Period. Oliver is written for Oliver, and he is real.
Now realize that he is just one boy, and that you can write any boy you want. Nothing pisses me off like a writer saying that boys have to strong, quiet about how they're feeling, but secretly weak underneath their hardened exterior.
NO! Your boy does not have to be ANYTHING. STOP MAKING BOYS THAT HAVE TO BE SOMETHING. We are no longer allowed to even hint that a girl has to have a specific quality for fear of someone calling sexism, so I am calling sexism on you.
Stop writing this boy you've imagined in your head and write a real boy. Make him gross or sweet or angry or well-adjusted or affectionate or uncomfortable or confused or ambitious or overwhelmed or smitten or anxious or depressed or desperate or happy. Write a boy the same way everyone has been telling everyone, forever, to write a girl; free of gender stereotypes, three-dimensional, and relatable.
Write books that lead logically from middle grade, that don't assume that boys wash their brains out when they hit puberty.
Put covers on books, no matter the gender of the main character, that boys will not be embarrassed to read on the subway. (My vlog tomorrow will have more on this). Teach boys that they don't need a man's name on the cover to know that they will like it.
Agents and publishers, either stop saying you're looking for boy books or start meaning it. Or figure out what a boy book is, because we need someone to explain it to us.
And I'm okay if it means, right now, "books with a male POV." Because I understand that that's a stepping stone boys need right now. I'm not okay with boys indefinitely refusing to read books with a girl's point of view. I'm completely okay with them only reading books that have real male characters in them. Let's make it easy for them to find them, first.
Write and publish fantasy and science fiction (FOR GOD'S SAKE WHERE IS THE SCIENCE FICTION) with strong male main characters. Boys need their blockbusters, too, and it doesn't matter how you feel about YA fantasy--you know just as well as I do what's selling, so let's expand that past the girl's point of view.
Boys. Shut up and read YA. The books are there. There aren't enough, we're absolutely sorry. But they're there. Stop insisting they're not. And I'm trying. And we're trying.
And we can't do this without you.
And the boy reader in your life isn't going to find this post on his own because he doesn't know me because he doesn't read YA, so you know what to do. This post has a link for a reason.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
First, you need to know my position.